The world is changing. Religion and politics shape the fate of entire nations, as new religions crowd out or subsume old ones and kingdoms are devoured by others. Into this world, Ismae’s father sells her into marriage with a brute-handed villager who nearly kills her when he sees the red scar on her back that marks her as being sired by Death Himself. Rescued by an herbwife and the village priest, she’s spirited off to the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters follow the old ways and the old gods, serving as Death’s handmaidens to ply His will and His justice. Trained in the myriad arts of the assassin, Ismae revels in a life unfettered by the dictates of a man.
Then she receives an assignment that thrusts her into the royal court of Brittany, a nation struggling to retain its sovereignty with a twelve-year old duchess against a grasping French regent and the ever-shifting alliances of Europe. Unable to trust anyone, uncertain how to interpret Mortain’s intentions, Ismae struggles to keep her footing in a den of treason, where not just her body but her heart is in danger every moment.
You guys, this book absolutely blew me away. In setting, in characters, in the things you carry away from it, this is an astounding book.
Even before the first page, you know this book stands out. The rich detail in the costuming, the mottled sky like a painted background, the castle behind her, all immediately inform you of the historical nature of this book. But in her hand? A crossbow. She’s holding a frickin’ crossbow. Even the title is provocative-Grave Mercy. But is it referring to mercy of a solemn nature, or the mercy of death? It’s not a question we ever get an answer to, but it’s a debate that runs through nearly every discovery in the story.
This book takes place in a very interesting part of history. Brittany was still a sovereign state but struggling to remain that way after their loss in the Franco-Breton war and the death of Duke Francis. Twelve-year-old Anne needs a strong marriage to protect her sovereignty but there’s no simple solution- her official fiancee, a prince of England, disappeared from his tower prison (yes, one of those princes). A treaty signed by her father requires the consent of the Crown of France to any marriage she might make, and Madame la Grande (Anne, Regent of France for Charles) is not inclined to give permission to an alliance that will strengthen Brittany against the French Crown. It’s also a time of great religious change- the Grand Inquisition is about to start and the papacy was making a great effort to strengthen its hold on the religious heart of the people and nations it touched. In nations like Brittany and Navarre, the old religions faded slowly and reluctantly, often adapting in appearance to avoid closer scrutiny by inquisitors of the church. All of that is actual historical fact.
It’s also a large part of the story. This book is brilliantly researched and the history comes alive within the pages. It isn’t he did/she did; it’s high stakes and it’s personal, every step of the way. The characters are rounded and dynamic, many layered, and defined by the roles into which they’ve been born.
In a sense, this could be called a feminist story. There are a number of female characters, each reacting to a sense of societal helplessness in different ways. Some, like the sisters of the convent of St. Mortain, escape from the world of men to make their own decisions. Some, like Duchess Anne, struggle to balance their duties of rank with a society that expects men to rule. Some seek to play men, some to merely endure them, and still others try to please them. No matter which path they choose, the women are still defined by the men. However, they’re not on a crusade to change that, not on a grand quest to liberate women from the bonds of an uneven societal and personal relationship. These women are too busy trying to simply survive.
Ismae is an amazing character, rich in strength but aware of her own weaknesses and slowly awakened to the dual nature of vulnerability. She doesn’t hate men like Sybella, nor she does have any particular love of them. She’s intelligent and resourceful, with generous faults, and a sincere belief in what she does. That her Crisis of Faith is in the service of an older god doesn’t change the basic fabric of the decisions she has to make. She has a genuine love her for tasks and abilities, not because she glories in the act of death but because it’s something she can do, a talent and a set of dearly bought and finely honed abilities. She’s appealing as a character, someone with whom we can easily sympathize. The fact that we sympathize with an assassin simply makes it an example of stellar writing.
And then there’s Duval: Gavriel Duval, bastard half-brother to the duchess and her sworn protector, stands at the heart of the dangers in the Breton court. It’s Ismae’s job to learn the exact nature of his position there. He’s a complicated man, a riot of emotions and seemingly conficting actions, with a web of information that frequently skirts the gray areas of moral inquiry. He plays things close to the chest, parceling out only what information he must, trusting minimally, but trusting effusively in those very few who’ve earned that. He’s a man consumed by what he does, but we spend most of the book uncertain about what, precisely, he’s doing.
The details in this book are gorgeous. Whether it’s the depths of the political intrigue or the different poisons or even the (completely realistic!) ways in which one might hide a variety of weapons in clothing, it’s the details that really make this book. That it’s woven so seamlessly through real history and characters is just…just…gorgeous. Unutterably, instrinsically, mind-blowingly gorgeous.
Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers, out in stores 3 April 2012. DO NOT MISS THIS BOOK.
In fact, want to win my ARC? Easy-peasy, US only, open through Tuesday, 20 March, all you have to do is answer a question below: if you could read an historical fiction about any person or set of events, what would it be?
Until next time~